Celebrating American Pioneers of Industrial Design

USPS Pioneers of American Industrial Design Postage Stamp Set

Russel Wright American Modern dinnerware: Water Pitchers
Russel Wright American Modern dinnerware: Water pitchers from outer space.
The U.S. Postal Service has just issued its newest series of commemorative stamps, and it’s a marvelous set. Instead of honoring yet another crop of political leaders, sports figures or performing arts stars, these postage stamps commemorate 12 American pioneers of industrial design.

Names like Norman Bel Geddes, Gilbert Rohde, Russel Wright and Dave Chapman may not be known to many people today, but they were among a rarefied group of forward thinkers who revolutionized the way we think about design.

In part a reaction against the delicate fussiness of the beaux arts and art nouveau styles, these visionaries sought simplicity in form, celebrating the “utilitarian” aspects of the products they designed while eschewing any purely decorative elements.

From the clock radios of Norman Bel Geddes to the rotary telephone of Henry Dreyfuss, these designs placed “function” front and center. And they were indeed eyebrow-raising – in some cases shocking – to American consumers of the 1940s and 1950s.

But unlike the often ugly, relentlessly boring steel-and-glass boxes that came to symbolize modern architectural style, the items these industrial designers created possessed a style and elegance all their own – and many went on to become icons of design in their respective product categories.

In my youth, our household was one of many that owned a set of American Modern dinnerware, designed by Russel Wright and manufactured by Steubenville Pottery. These dishes were the epitome of “functional simplicity” – used and abused in kitchens and dining rooms during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

And yet, despite all of their simplicity, they had a style that was so distinct, no one who lived with them could ever forget them. “Vegetable bowls from outer space,” a friend of mine remarked once.

But Russel Wright and his fellow designers were doing far more than just paring down to the essentials; they aimed to simplify daily life itself. As a parallel to designing tableware, furniture and decorative objects, Russel Wright and his wife, Mary Wright, published a book titled The Guide to Easier Living.

Aiming to sweep away the last vestiges of the “old order,” when the well-heeled and bourgeois alike relied on “the help” to carry out elaborate dinner parties and other social functions, this book was a veritable how-to guide for the modern 1950s family.

How to organize and decorate the home … how to go about daily living … how to entertain without all of the fussy trappings: This and more were spelled out in suggestions and step-by-step instructions.

Originally published in 1950, the book was an instant success. Amazingly, it would be re-released in 2003 in its original form – without any editorial updates or adjustments – its content remaining surprisingly up-to-date.

The same timeless quality characterizes the work of the other 11 industrial designers featured in the USPS commemorative postage stamp series as well. Time and time again, people have returned to the work of these designers for inspiration.

Indeed, some of today’s most talked-about products, such as Target’s Michael Graves series of teapots or the new Dyson line of bladeless fans, trace their design inspiration straight back to the work of these pioneers – revolutionary in their day, but true classics now.

Sandford Dody: The most famous biographer you’ve never heard of.

Sandford Dody, ghostwriter to the stars.
Sandford Dody: Ghostwriter to the stars.
The American author Sandford Dody died a month ago. You’re forgiven if you don’t know who he is – and not just because, at age 90, he was a throwback to another era.

Mr. Dody was, in fact, the author of numerous autobiographies of American stars of the stage and screen. But the public never really knew that, because his name didn’t appear on his books.

Dody was a ghostwriter. Acclaimed “autobiographies” that in actuality he authored of celebrities like Bette Davis (The Lonely Life) and Helen Hayes (On Reflection) became best-sellers, with readers delighted to find out how “good” Miss Davis and Miss Hayes were as authors – almost as great as their acting abilities!

Most would never learn the truth – that Sandford Dody, as confidante and gentle interrogator, was the person who coaxed and teased these great stories out of his subjects.

How did Dody end up becoming “Ghostwriter to the Stars”? Like so many people who made their careers in the field of entertainment and arts journalism “back in the day,” the native New Yorker started out wanting to be in show business, perhaps as an actor or a writer. And like many others with stars in their eyes, he made the trek to California to try his luck in the film industry.

Back in the 1940s, it wasn’t so hard to meet the famous as well as not-so-famous who inhabited the then-relatively small world of the Hollywood film industry. Even as he dreamed of becoming a playwright, Dody took bit parts in a few films.

But as it became clear he would never ascend the heights either in front of the footlights or on the marquee boards, and in need of money, Dody turned to ghostwriting beginning in the 1950s. His first project was authoring the autobiography of a now-obscure silent film star, Dagmar Godowsky. (One could assume Miss Godowsky was obscure even then, some 30 years after her film career had ended!)

The assignments with Bette Davis, Helen Hayes, the Metropolitan Opera star Robert Merrill, and members of the Barrymore family came along later, in the 1960s. (The Davis autobiography was particularly successful, and is credited with leading to a late-career renaissance for the aging movie star.) And while these projects would prove to be financially lucrative for Dody, it is clear from his own writings that the author was somewhat ambivalent about the whole business of ghostwriting.

In fact, he stopped doing it after his book on Miss Hayes was released. Why? In his own autobiography, published in 1980, Dody gives us a clue. “The most suitable way to view stars is from a long way off,” he declared.

For Dody, it seems that spending so many hours with his subjects as he prepared to write his manuscripts, experiencing their egotism and petty vanity “up close and personal” inevitably came as a letdown. “Let the next star write her own damned autobiography,” is how he would sum it up after he retired.

In later years, Sandford Dody returned to New York City, where he resided quietly in Lower Manhattan, living off his royalties and indulging in his passion for the musical and visual arts. For those of us who know New York as a “walker’s city,” it will come as no surprise that Dody kept up a nearly-every-day regimen of walking an eight-mile loop from his Greenwich Village apartment to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center and back. It’s an important clue as to how he was able to reach his tenth decade despite having battled asthma from the earliest years of childhood.

Ironically, it is a poignant passage from his own autobiography, Giving Up the Ghost, that illustrates the uncommon talent Dody possessed as a writer – and hints at what he might have produced had he taken a different literary path:

“When a ghost’s job is done, he wanders, unheeded, unseen in a half-world and in circles now too grand for him. Unseen by everyone – except on rare occasion by the subject who pretends blindness but winks conspiratorially when the unfamiliars are looking the other way – I have been able to slip through closed doors and between locked mortals as they engage in their earthly affairs. Impossible to be heard, I for one have cried out in protest, in joy, in vain. Isn’t that what death is all about, finally?”